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Ashoka-Grameen Dialogue: Exploring Market-Based Social Enterprise

Team: Angela Hansen '05, Abbas Hasan '06 and Rachael Strieter '06
Project: Scale, sustainability and market-based models in social enterprise - trends assessment
Supervisor: Andrew Kuper, Ashoka

Ashoka is a global nonprofit organization that aims to develop the profession of social entrepreneurship. Founded by ex-McKinsey consultant Bill Drayton, Ashoka identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs, called Fellows, who are implementing new ideas for systemic change in their communities. Ashoka has invested in more than 1,700 Fellows in 60 countries in areas as diverse as agriculture, education, health, human rights and the environment.

As part of Ashoka's commitment to supporting social entrepreneurs, it conducted a workshop with thirteen Fellows to explore scale, financial sustainability, and market-based models in October of 2003. Fellows traveled to Bangladesh to learn from Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank. Yunus is a pioneer in the field of microfinance, and has created scaleable, sustainable models for social ventures. The workshop, named the Dialogue, aimed to create a common action and agenda around "business-social ventures" — revenue-generating business models which are critical, rather than peripheral, to effecting systemic change for which social entrepreneurs are working.


Ashoka wished to assess the impact of the Dialogue, and to determine whether it had led to changes in the Fellows' approach to running their social ventures. A team of three Columbia MBA students examined the impact and outcomes of the Dialogue on the participating Fellows. They created an interview survey that allowed the Columbia team to gather useful information necessary to document the evolution of Fellows' thinking and to recognize future trends and opportunities for Ashoka to support social entrepreneurs. Two of the interviews were conducted on-site at Fellows' social enterprises, and the rest were conducted by telephone.

Tangible examples

The team traveled to South America to meet and interview two Ashoka Fellows in Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, Fundacão Pro Cerrado provides environmental and vocational education to high-risk, underprivileged Brazilian youth. Youth are then employed by Brazilian corporations, not just providing skilled employment, but also sparking environmental reform from within companies and communities. In Peru, one Fellow worked on rehabilitating the Peruvian garment industry in Lima to provide work in a clean, safe environment by using modern commercial and merchandising techniques.

Trends across countries

By examining examples across countries and sectors, the team was able to highlight key insights that may be generally applicable, as well as to differentiate what has worked based on specific market conditions. "Whether an entrepreneur chooses to scale by growing the organization, by adding programs or by 'syndicating' their theory of change, we found that social entrepreneurs needed to find dynamic organizational structures," says team member Rachael Strieter. "Interacting with and learning from with these inspiring leaders allowed us to see how market-based ideas like financial sustainability are used in reality."

Best practices and key insights from this project were presented by Ashoka at the 2005 annual Social Enterprise Alliance conference, and shared within the Ashoka Fellow network and with Grameen Bank. The projects' findings provide a perspective on where Ashoka might focus future assistance to support social entrepreneurs scale and to further develop the field of social entrepreneurship.

The team's travel costs were supported by the Social Enterprise Program through its International Development Consulting Project Travel Fund.

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